A Muslim former intelligence officer says systemic racism at CSIS is a threat to national security

·8 min read
Nathaniel Veltman, 20, faces four first-degree murder charges, one attempted murder charge and associated terrorism charges in connection with a June 6 attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont. Police and prosecutors allege the attack involving a truck was an act of anti-Muslim hate. (Turgut Yeter/CBC - image credit)
Nathaniel Veltman, 20, faces four first-degree murder charges, one attempted murder charge and associated terrorism charges in connection with a June 6 attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont. Police and prosecutors allege the attack involving a truck was an act of anti-Muslim hate. (Turgut Yeter/CBC - image credit)

A Muslim woman who worked as a senior intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said the systemic racism and lack of diversity she experienced firsthand at CSIS constitute a national security threat — especially in light of a recent deadly attack on a Canadian Muslim family.

Huda Mukbil, a hijab-wearing Arabic-speaker, said she was treated as an insider threat and interrogated about her religion during her 15-year career at CSIS.

Mukbil said she was forced to cut ties with Muslim organizations, ostracized at work and treated like a second-class citizen. She left the intelligence agency in 2017 after helping to launch a civil lawsuit against CSIS over claims of discrimination.

"It's the reason why individuals in the Muslim community don't feel they can trust the organization to tackle far-right threats," Mukbil — who is seeking the nomination to run as the federal NDP candidate in Ottawa-South — told CBC News.

"The lack of trust is because of the lack of diversity. We don't have officers like me who are going out and speaking to people who can relate to their experiences. There's a moment now to do something."

The man accused of running down a Muslim family in London, Ont. with a truck on June 6 had a brief court appearance this week. He faces murder and terrorism charges stemming from the incident, which claimed the lives of four people and seriously injured a 9-year-old boy.

Turgut Yeter/CBC
Turgut Yeter/CBC

CSIS 'should have seen [mosque attack] coming'

The tragedy is the second deadly attack in Canada targeting Muslims in just the past four years.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, killing six. An investigation revealed the gunman was radicalized online and was consumed by far-right media.

"CSIS should have seen Alexandre Bissonette coming," said Mukbil. "He was online. He was contributing to discussions with far-right organizations."

CSIS did not respond directly to Mukbil's claims when asked for comment. It did say that it's able to investigate suspected violent extremism or terrorism earlier than any other agency in Canada, and that threats targeting the Muslim community "will always be a priority."

The spy agency's director David Vigneault admitted last year that CSIS does have an internal racism problem.

"Yes, systemic racism does exist here, and yes there is a level of harassment and fear of reprisal within the organization," he said, according to a transcript of a 2020 meeting.

CSIS did not grant CBC News an interview. In a statement, Vigneault wrote that "ensuring greater diversity and inclusion is one of my greatest priorities."

"I am committed to ensuring that CSIS reflects the various vibrant communities across Canada that it protects — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is necessary in order to keep Canada safe," wrote Vigneault.

'I ... felt like I was being targeted at CSIS'

Mukbil said she went to work in CSIS's counter-terrorism section in 2002. She said she was, to her knowledge, CSIS's first ever hijab-wearing Black-Arab intelligence officer. Initially, she said, she was well received at Ottawa headquarters.

But two years into her job, she said, everything changed.

The perceived source of the terrorist threat in Canada in 2004 shifted from al-Qaeda to young, second- and third-generation Canadian Muslims, she said. Mukbil said she suddenly found herself treated as an insider threat as well.

"I myself felt like I was being targeted at CSIS," she said. "I felt like the entire organization had turned against me and I felt that I was alone."

She said it wasn't until she took a posting in the U.K. helping MI5, the United Kingdom's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, that she felt her skills as a Muslim, Arab-speaking intelligence officer were being acknowledged. She said she helped to generate leads on the 2005 bombings in London that killed 56 people.

Reuters
Reuters

She said the British deputy prime minister was one of the senior officials who personally thanked her for her work.

But when Mukbil returned to Toronto as an investigator, she said, CSIS did not recognize her achievements. According to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against CSIS that was settled in 2017, an allied security force questioned why CSIS would hire a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and no one in CSIS management defended her.

Multimillion-dollar lawsuit

Mukbil's discrimination claims formed part of that lawsuit. Five intelligence officers claimed they faced years of discrimination at CSIS because they were Muslim, Black or gay.

Mukbil claimed in the lawsuit she was ordered not to associate with specific Muslim groups or individuals. She also claimed she underwent a 10-hour interview over two days in 2005 that began with CSIS officials asking her to take a polygraph test. She said she refused.

Mukbil said she was interrogated by CSIS officials about her faith. She said her questioners asked her why she decided to wear a hijab and how often she prayed, and for her views on Canadian troops in Afghanistan, suicide bombings and well-known Islamic leaders.

Following the interview, Mukbil filed a complaint that she said went all the way up to the CSIS director of the day. She said the director issued some memos about bias in the workplace in response.

The suit alleged Mukbil was denied access to source files and passed up for promotions and other foreign postings. She said she filed grievances and a harassment complaint, and did advocacy work with Muslim organizations and the NDP's public safety critic at the time, Matthew Dubé, to push for a more a more diverse workplace.

"The threat is supposed to be on the outside," Mukbil told CBC News. "And yet in the office is where most of the trouble was for me."

Marc Robichaud/CBC News
Marc Robichaud/CBC News

As a result of the lawsuit, the spy agency conducted its own external investigation into the culture at the Toronto regional office where Mukbil worked. In a rare move, CSIS publicly released the findings of the third-party review.

Vigneault said the investigation found "serious concerns surrounding retribution, favouritism, bullying and other inappropriate behaviour that is categorically unacceptable in a high-functioning, professional organization."

Since then, CSIS said, it has "made improvements to an already robust system of reporting," including a new code of conduct for employees on harassment and new mandatory training for supervisors on promoting a healthy workplace.

CSIS said it started developing a diversity and inclusion strategy last year to address bias and build a more inclusive leadership team and recruitment process. That work helped to increase the percentage of visible minorities in the agency's annual intake of new recruits from 18 per cent in 2019 to 25 per cent in 2020, CSIS said.

CSIS's lack of diversity is a weak point: ex-operative

CSIS said its latest figures show that roughly 18 per cent of its employees self-identified in 2019/2020 as visible minority; of those, 7.6 per cent were executives.

Levels of underrepresentation and rates of harassment and discrimination faced by visible minorities "remain unacceptably high" across the security and intelligence sector in Canada, said a report tabled in Parliament last year by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.

Mubin Shaikh spent two years as an undercover security operative for CSIS working on investigations of extremist groups, including the 'Toronto 18'. He's now a professor of public safety at Seneca College.

Shaikh said the lack of diversity at CSIS and other intelligence and police agencies in Canada is "a weak point."

"It definitely compromises the practice of national security," said Shaikh. "In order for you to get the right intelligence, you need to be getting it from the right sources. If your sources don't reflect the society you're serving, then you're going to get bad intelligence."

Amira Elghawaby, human rights advocate and former communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said cases like Mukbil's can only add to Muslim communities' distrust of CSIS.

"If we hear about and learn there have been issues of racism, that staff are being treated in a discriminatory manner, that really shakes our ability to trust these institutions to serve our interests," said Elghawaby.

CBC News
CBC News

CSIS spokesperson John Townsend said in a media statement that while the work of making CSIS "more diverse and inclusive is ongoing, we are proud of the significant strides that we have made in recent years."

CSIS said it has recruitment teams working on finding candidates from diverse backgrounds. The agency also points to its work on creating new terminology to better describe different types of, and motivations for, violent extremism and terrorism.

Post 9/11 terrorist acts were often referred to as "Islamic extremism", said CSIS — which became a kind of shorthand for terrorism. CSIS said the new threat lexicon it created — to cover things like ethno-national violence, anti-LGBTQ violence and racially-motivated violence — has been adopted by the federal government and is also in use in New Zealand and Australia.

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